The Great Way Round by Dennis Hamley

The Great Way Round was the name cynics gave to the old Great Western Railway.  Despite his engineering genius, Brunel didn't seem to have an outstanding sense of direction.  I wanted to show a map of the early GWR so you could see what I meant.  But I couldn't find a good one and besides most of the kinks have been straightened out or closed by Dr Beeching. 

It's also a good way of describing the next episode in my life.  On December 9th we depart for New Zealand because it's Kay's turn for Christmas (anyone for a barbecue on Christmas Day?) and getting there, I can assure you, really is a Great Way Round.  We won't be back until January 20th and so I'm writing three blogs now and hoping I get the scheduling right so 2 and 3 really will appear early on the 14th of January and February.

There's a third Great Way Round to consider.  When I joined Authors Electric, Sue Price suggested to me that, as I had been in the publishing business for so long - I suspect longest of all Electric Authors - readers might like my tales of the dear, dead old days in the trade.  Good idea, I thought.  When I look back I can hardly believe the difference between what it was then and what it is now.  Was it better or worse?  I really don't know.  Perhaps my story, unique to me but recognisable to many others, may help me to decide.  But whichever it is, nothing can ever replace the mixture of expectation, fear, disappointment, heady relief and release and sheer delight which those early days possessed.

Did I always want to be a writer?  Well, yes.  The idealistic half of me certainly did.  But the half of me conscious of its working-class background in which the most common cry in my childhood was 'But we can't afford it, Dennis,' (and I'm none the worse for it, having kept my World War 2 mentality of ludicrous economy, even filching my wheelbarrow, a child's bike and a radiogram in perfectly good order from the local refuse tip) said that I had to earn my living and get a steady wage.  So that came first.

I did start a correspondence course on the short story.  But I soon decided it was rubbish and quietly dropped out.  RAF and university kept me busy enough.  When I got to university, I found that Cambridge was full of writers. Though I envied them, they seemed to me not only a bit scary but a right poncey lot and I didn't write a single word while I was there except for essays and occasional film reviews for Broadsheet.   I've already mentioned my love for the Middle Ages.  I didn't suspect it would lead to the eventual fulfilment of at least some my ambitions.

In those days, the mid-50s, you could teach with no qualifications whatever.  One vacation, when my usual sources of vacation jobs - building sites, farms, even a soup factory - seemed to have dried up, someone suggested I should cycle over to the Divisional Education Office and see if there was anything going there.  So I went and, almost before I had introduced myself, was asked to get on my bike and go to Newport Pagnell Secondary School, where there was a big problem to which I would be the ideal solution.  So I did and  two hours later found myself in front of forty rebellious 14 year-olds 'teaching' Art.  God help us.

Actually, I thought it was great.  I was there for a month.  I was appalled at how badly stocked the school was.  Par for the course in those days, I fear. Not that much better now.  I wanted to do some drama with the kids.  In those days, that only meant playscripts.   But there were none in the stock cupboard.  However, it so happened that one of the set texts that year for part 1 of the English tripos was The Wakefield Play of Noah and his Sons and I needed to turn it into modern English.  Why not, I reasoned, turn it into an acting version, complete with the distinctive Wakefield stanza, a complicated-seeming form but actually beautifully fitted to the human voice?  So I did - looking back on it now, incredibly quickly - with a stylus on Gestetner sheets (anyone remember them?) which next day I messily rolled off on the school duplicator.  

Duplicator - Gestetner Duplicator

The Gestetner duplicator.  Prehistoric photocopier and source of inky fingers and bad language.

The kids really liked the plays and I felt vindicated because the rest of the staff had been gloomily forecasting riots and failure.   When term ended I took the copies away with me in case I ever needed them again (the school certainly didn't) and got on with my life.   Much later, I was on teaching practice in Bristol.  I didn't do the play there but one evening, at a loose end, I realised there was a copy of the Wakefield First Shepherd's Play in the Pelican Guide to Medieval Literature and. almost without realising what I was doing, found myself translating that too. I showed the  results to Dorothy Atkinson, English lecturer in the Bristol University Education Department (not the children's author of the same name) and she suggested I send them to Heinemann Educational Books.  So I did, with a third play, Cain and Abel, which I translated while still in the mood.  And, to my complete dumbfoundedness, they accepted them.

First book.  1962.  I was 26.  Not spectacularly young, like Sue Price with the Carnegie medal first go.  But young enough to be elated.  My first book.  I was on the way.

I did some more plays, but production was costed at 10 shillings each and that, Heinemann decided, was way too expensive.  So I got on with changing jobs, getting married and having children.  I had tried starting an adult novel - very Angry Young Man (think John Braine and Kingsley Amis).  I bought a portable typewriter especially to do it.  I wrote the first chapter, thought it was ok and them wondered what happened next.  I had no idea, so I used the typewriter to type examination papers, as God intended.

Then I moved to a College of Education.  In the library I found a new world.  Children's Literature really seemed to be becoming an accepted art form in its own right, worthy of critical study and appearing in University English degrees.  Alan Garner, Philippa Pearce, Bernard Ashley, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Robert Leeson, Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield.  Writers of extraordinary talent and power.  Then  I read CS Lewis's essay 'On Three Ways of Writing for Children.'  It was, to me, mind-blowing.  'I could to this,' I thought.  'And I shall.'

The Middle Ages and the Wakefield Master came to my aid again.  I wrote my first novel, Pageants of Despair, at least partly to see if I had the stamina to write 60,000 consecutive words.  Well, it seemed I had, so I sent it off to my old editor at Heinemann Educational Books asking him to deliver it to the children's book department.  

Then I waited.  And waited.  A year went past.  I met an author who told me not to worry: the longer a publisher kept a book the more likely they were to take it.  So I went on waiting, full of a confidence very soon to be knocked out of me.  On Christmas Eve, 1972, the front doorbell rang.  There was the postman with a parcel.  I opened it and found my novel inside... WITH NO LETTER,  NOT EVEN A POSTCARD.

I was beside myself with fury.  I wasn't much fun that Christmas.  But as soon as 1973 started I plotted a revenge.  I divided the book into nine sections of two chapters each, sent each section to one of the nine publishers who seemed to me to be the best and enclosed a letter saying that if they wanted any more I'd send them the rest.  Three weeks later a letter came from Pamela Royds of Andre Deutsch asking to see the rest.  Next day a letter came from the Bodley Head.  Then Methuen.  Just savour all those great names from the past.

And then Pam wrote another letter, couched very circumspectly.  'I think I like this enough to make it worthwhile to meet.  Could you come to lunch on...?'  Slightly worried by 'think', I arrived in Great Russell Street far too early and spent half an hour walking up and down between Tottenham Court Road and the British Museum feeling more and more scared until it was time to enter the rickety Victorian house, home of Andre Deutsch, the small but influential literary publisher. I met Pam, we shook hands and then she said 'Come and have some lunch.'

Publishing was different in those days.  Andre Deutsch had a small dining room on the top floor run by a French chef.  The first thing I saw was a table loaded with every alcoholic drink known to humanity.  'What will you have?' asked Pam.   I didn't answer.  I just stared at it, realising what they meant about publishing being a career fit for gentlemen.

'Have a whisky,' she said.  'You're going to need it.'

As she poured it I wondered why.  Then she led me to a table, produced my novel and said, very severely, 'What do you think you've been doing? We editors stick together.  We could have put your novel together without you bothering to send the rest.  We don't like it.  We're busy people and you've wasted our time.  Don't ever do it again.'

I was quite cross and told her that I'd had my time wasted by them, over a year in fact, and at that rate I'd have my telegram from the Queen long before anyone published  Pageants.  Anyway, with any luck the day's outcome would mean that I wouldn't need to.

'Besides,' she said.  'The first three chapters are awful.'   Before I could say, 'Thanks very much.  I'll fetch my coat now,' she added, 'Get rid of them and I'll publish it because apart from them it's good.'
Product Details

The first edition of Pageants of Despair published in 1974

Product Details

The second US edition published in 2006 by Paul Dry Books
The first was published by SG Phillips in 1975.  The firm folded six months afterwards. Think what you like!

So that was it.  I left walking on air.  I was on the way.  What could stop me?   Awards, medals, prizes, riches - I was destined to get the lot.  Well, anyway....  What did come out of that unpromising start was a long relationship with someone who I regard as one of the GREAT children's book editors, Pamela Royds.

To be continued in our next.

PS.  Sorry.  I meant December 14th and January 14th.  We'll have been back three weeks before February 14th dawns.  Do keep up, Hamley..


Susan Price said…
Fascinating, Dennis! And, have a great time in New Zealand, you and Kay, and come back safe!
julia jones said…
Oh I did enjoy this - a contender already for AE anthology no2 But serious, at the outset of AE did you thiunk you'd have the sang froid to be merrily scheduling blogs in advance to pop up obediently with you on the other side of the world? I still get the shakes writing and postng the night before!
Jane Henry said…
Oh Dennis, I've heard that story about you and Pam from both sides, but never told as eloquently or wittily as here!

So glad Pam did take you on, otherwise we'd never have met, and I wouldn't have had the privilege of editing you too.

Have a great trip to NZ. Look forward to reading parts 2 &3

CallyPhillips said…
Dennis Hamley. God among us. That was fantastic Dennis, I'm so glad you are serialising your 'life story'!!! I've just finished reading Spirit of the Place and I LOVED IT with a passion. As RB wrote to EBB - Dear Dennis, I love your writing and I love you! (tell Kay not to worry, I'm just being literary) Have a great time in NZ. We'll miss you and haste ye back in 2013.
Penny Dolan said…
This is brilliant, Dennis, and I can hear you telling it as I read, especially that bit about your mood when you finally met the estimable Pam.

Longing for the next parts of your story now. A different but not always so different world.

Have a wonderful time with Kay in NZ.
Bill Kirton said…
Great stuff, Dennis. More, more, more. I'm a contemporary so it brought back my memories of the same sort of processes (although mine were with radio plays and the Beeb). But lunches with editors and all the mystique of that magical world of publishing - as you say, so so different.
I hope you have a great time in New Zealand.
Dennis Hamley said…
Well, thank you all! Julia, I have no sang foid at all. I scheduled this for 00.30 this morning but when I went in to AE at 8 this morning IT WASN'T THERE. Panic. So I pressed Publish again and it STILL wasn't there. Kay, calm as ever, said 'Why not press Refresh?' Aftr she'd told me what it was and where I could find it, I did and stone me but there it was. But I have terrible forebodings about the fate of the next two.

Jane, or may I call you Julia? I didn't know who was commenting at first. Yes, we had good days at Scholastic, Pam, you and me. Listen up, folks, this is the wonderful lady who edited the first three Joslins and helped me see not only the way which they should go but got me into writing Point Crimes in the first place, thus turning my writing career around when I was thinking it might be running into the sand. She'll be appearing in Part 2, whether she likes it or not.

Cally, I'm so glad S of the P passes muster. And I've made my peace with Kay.

Penny, you're in part 2 as well.

Dennis Hamley said…
Ah, Bill. Two old gits together. Such tales to tell. Good, eh?
Chris Longmuir said…
I really enjoyed reading this and I'm looking forward to part 2
madwippitt said…
Ah, those good old days ... came over all nostalgic at the memory of duplicators, PE treachers doubling as Art teachers, carbon paper, rejection slips and later on the joys of cutting and pasting a magazine together instead of faffing about with computers ... just off to sniff some Pritt stick ...
Jan Needle said…
I loved that, Dennis, thanks. The thing i remember best about being a Deutsch author (apart from the divine Pam, for whom I once wrote one of my three poems. It started

'I've got a novel for you, Mrs Royds, I said
To Pam, the boss of this ere publishers...'

Something like that, anyway. I never met Andre Deutsch, the actual boss, in all my years of cruising in and out, but the phone rang in the publicity office one afternoon while Sheila Murphy (forgive me if i'm wrong) slipped out for another bottle.

'Who are you?' he said.

'Jan Needle. One of your children's authors.'

'Ah', he said. 'Pleased to meet you. Make sure you keep warm, won't you?'

And that was that.

Ah, how things change. Last night I ended up slipping into a Manchester dive in what they now call, oddly, The Northern Quarter. There to listen to Dan Holloway blasting out some terrific poetry, while the wall behind him scrolled the names and comments of other poets, and friends, from all ower t'world, lad. What would Andre have said to that, I wonder?

Keep warm, probably!

Love to Kay, and hurry back from God's Own.
Susan Price said…
Dennis, if you read this, you had scheduled your post to appear at 12 noon. At about 8-30 am, I went round the back of the blog, in my guise as blog-brownie, and altered the time so it appeared.
I also copied your post-script to the end of your blog, and deleted your later one, so it didn't appear as a confusing mini-blog all by itself.
The blog-brownie will happily accept all offering of bread milk, but would prefer cake and cream.
Susan Price said…
And correction - I got my first publishing contract at 16, but I was 32 when I won the Carnegie. Thanks very much for the mensh, anyway!
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, I met Andre just once. 'One of my children's authors,' said Pam. He gave a weary sort of look, somehow pained, and said, 'I see.' and wandered off. Did you know he was incredibly mean and insisted on 40 watt light bulbs throughout? Pam blamed her fading eyesight on him, though in a rather affectionate way.

Sue, you are a star. I've made a habit of doing extra blogs because I've forgotten something. Perhaps now I too can make them postscripts. And you SHOULD have won the Carnegie at 16 - and 32 as well And the Sterkarms, even (or especially) if the third has to be indie, should have a specially minted Trilogy Medal, together with a rather large cheque.
Lydia Bennet said…
very enjoyable Dennis, great to hear your story of first breakthrough. I love the way you divided the book up to send out - this would be a total no-no nowadays! do have a fab time in NZ and I look forward to the next instalment!
Great stuff Dennis! Fab story...

Still plugging away at Echo Hall - and this encourages me to keep plugging!

Enjoy NZ and say hi to Kay.
Jane Henry said…
Dennis, oo er... will look out for it. I only came on as Jane as that's my blogging identity, but it's Julia to you, always!!Thanks for that lovely intro. I loved editing the Joslin books, mwah, mwah.

And yes, Susan should undoubtedly have won the Carnegie for the Sterkarms, but really glad she won the Guardian. My proudest ever moment as an editor.

Oh and if this isn't incestuous enough, Virginia Moffatt above is my twin sister, and Dennis taught her creative writing...
Dennis Hamley said…
Gosh, what a lovely meeting of old friends this is turning out to be. Virginia, plug on with Echo Hall because from what I've reads so far I know it's going to be good. Lydia (or may I call you Val?) I tremble now when I think of my temerity in splitting up my second carbon copy and scattering the bits all over the publishing world. But I was amazed to find that when I finally got myself an agent in 2002 (not that they wouldn't have me: I didn't see the need for one when I had all the work I could handle) she sent the first novel I did for her (Ellen's People) to four publishers at once. Walker made an offer first and I said, against her advice, 'let's take it and run.' I might have done better to wait. But I realised that part of the old spirit remains.

Julia, I didn't know it was you who edited the magnificent Sterkarm Handshake. Brilliant. I always though it was David.
Pauline Fisk said…
Dennis, I too loved your story, not least because it brought to mind the Shrewsbury Fragment which I always meant to 'have a go at', though I'm sure by now I never will.

I'm waiting for Part II with bated breath. In the meantime, have a good Christmas in New Zealand.
The worst thing about those old Gestetner duplicators was that the PE teachers at my school - who doubled as geography teachers - would insist in handwriting their notes that were then distributed to us lot.

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